Are you what you read?

Mesa

The modern trope would have it that you are what you eat, but the metaphor needs taking further.

It may be that such phrases need turning round the other way. Perhaps we eat what we eat because we are the way we are.

I think I read what I read because of my character, my preferences and prejudices, my weltanschauung, if you will.

And yet sometimes what I read deeply affects what I am. Or what I feel at least. I am not talking about strong or destructive emotions but gentler, more thoughtful modes of being.

I suppose actually I am talking about two sides of the same coin. Our character tends to be reflected in what we do, eat, think, say and read. But equally we receive flow back and re-reinforcement from those external influences and need to guard against intrusion by destructive forces.

I was reading a chapter of Surface Detail yesterday, one of the Culture series by Iain M Banks. All of his books deserve multiple re-reading but I think it was only the second time I have read this one.

Chay is rescued from a high tech Hell (a simulated reality to deter bad behavior) and becomes a nun or devotee in a convent of sorts on a mesa in the middle of a desert. The convent and mesa also exist in a simulated reality but for all we know our own “reality” is simulated anyway.

She is not a believer in the deity she is required to worship and yet becomes soothed and healed by the daily routines she must pursue.

The nuns copy manuscripts in a foreign language word by word into blank books and illustrate them in the manner of early Christians. These are traded for food and necessities with travelling merchants who come to the foot of the mesa each year.

Other than that, the daily devotions involve singing. Lots of it. Despite her disbelief, the beauty and mesmeric quality of her life, and the melody and rhythm of the chants she must sing, heal Chay. She eventually becomes Abbess and dies, to be made into an angel with the power to rescue souls from Hell.

Devotees will know that Banks was an atheist and yet here is this sublime chapter in a science fiction novel which soothes and heals not only Chay but the reader. I was with Chay in that lonely beautiful outpost on the edge of god knows where. I felt her daily life and the mesmerism of it. I was deeply attracted by its beauty and simplicity.

So did this chapter seek me out? Or did I seek out this chapter? Or a bit of both perhaps?

I think what my experience does tell me is the way I would like to lead my life. Can lead my life, I suppose.

The trick is to surrender to beauty, to rhythm, to routine, beauty and music. If you are one of the fortunate few able to escape from the hell that is the world. Perhaps that is what a medieval religious was doing: escaping from ugly brutality.

Is this cheating? Is it running away? Do I care? Should I?

Photograph: By Qfl247 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14289418

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